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Home > Publications > Quill > SPJ should strive to reach across borders


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Thursday, March 30, 2006
SPJ should strive to reach across borders

By David Carlson, SPJ President

SPJ is an old and venerable organization. During our 97-year history, we have carried the torch for journalism ethics, freedom of information, journalism education and more. But we have carried that torch almost exclusively in the United States.

I think it’s time to change that.

The Society can have great impact in areas of the world where freedom of the press is not the longstanding right it is here in the United States.

In many countries, especially in emerging democracies, freedom of information law is new, and the ethical practice of journalism is even newer.

In the Dominican Republic, for example, is not uncommon for journalists to work by day doing public relations for government agencies — and by night as journalists, covering the same agencies.

Top editors and publishers of Dominican newspapers say openly that a lot of journalists are paid by organizations they cover, and most of the newspapers are owned by banks because they are interested in influencing events.

In other countries, including some not so new to press freedom, journalists have a much different attitude from ours on exactly what the job of a journalist is.

Spend a few minutes with journalists from many Asian or Latin American countries, and you likely will hear that they believe journalists are supposed to influence public opinion. Coverage is skewed, and everyone knows it.

Spend a few minutes talking to a journalist from Mainland China, and you will likely hear that the duty of a journalist is not to tell the truth, but to tell citizens what the government wants them to know.

Spend a few minutes with some other Asian journalists, and you likely will learn that the national organization to which they belong gets a large portion of its annual funding from the government.

In Korea, it is common for journalists to be wined and dined by their sources. It’s the way things work.

In some countries, enterprise reporting has yet to emerge. News coverage is done almost exclusively by press conference, and, because of intense competition, the journalists don’t believe they can break the cycle by not covering those news conferences.

If you think I am heading toward a rant about how terrible these practices are, you’re mistaken.

I believe it is inappropriate for SPJ to judge the practices of journalists in other nations. It would be wrong — and useless — for us to ride in on our high (and arrogant) horse and tell them they are wrong, or unethical, or behaving inappropriately.

I do think we can provide a good example, though, a positive role model, simply by making those journalists aware of our practices.

In December, I traveled to the Dominican Republic to meet with news organizations there, thanks to International Journalism Committee Co-Chair Dan Kubiske and the U.S. Embassy in Santo Domingo. I took along 50 copies of the SPJ Code of Ethics, translated to Spanish, and distributed them in the newsrooms.

To some of these organizations, the idea of an ethics code for journalists was new. None of them had a code of its own before Kubiske and I visited them. Now, one of them does. Clave Digital, an online and print news organization whose name translates to “Digital Key,” has adopted the SPJ Code of Ethics as its own.

Yes, it’s a small victory, one small news organization in an entire country, but it’s a victory nonetheless.

Kubiske and I also met with Dr. Rafael Molina Morillo, incoming president of the Inter American Press Association, an organization most Latin American newspapers belong to, rather like our Newspaper Association of America.

We spoke about SPJ’s commitment to the ethical practice of journalism, and Molina was very intrigued. He agreed that our Code of Ethics could be an influential force in Latin America, and he thought it would be worthwhile for SPJ to present an ethics program next October at IAPA’s annual convention in Mexico City.

Yes, it is another small victory, but this one could lead to much larger ones in many countries. Bringing ethical thinking about journalism to nations in which it has not yet emerged is no small thing.

This effort does not have to be expensive for SPJ. It does not have to dilute our efforts at home. I am not suggesting we divert even 1 percent of our budget to internationalization. I have made my international visits not on SPJ’s dime, but at my expense and that of my employer. Kubiske has, too.

But I do have two favors to ask. If you, or someone you know, can translate the Code of Ethics into another language, please let me know. So far, it is available in Arabic, English, French, Portuguese, Russian, Slovene and Spanish. You can find those versions at www.spj.org/ethics.asp.

The farther and wider we can distribute that Code, the more dramatic our international impact will be.

The other favor is this: If you know journalists from other countries, invite them to your local SPJ events. Ask them to speak about how ethics and freedom of information are addressed in their home countries, or about the problems journalists face in their countries. You may find we all have more in common than you think.


David Carlson spent more than 20 years as a reporter, photographer, designer and top editor at newspapers before joining the University of Florida in 1993. He was an early developer of online newspapers and now is the Cox/Palm Beach Post professor of new media journalism and director of the Interactive Media Lab at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

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